My Life is Headed in a Novel Direction

Last fall, as I went on leave from grad school frustrated with my lack of progress and unsure whether I would return, I acquired Neal Stephenson’s then-brand-new novel Anathem. He writes what are probably my favorite fiction books, particularly his latest works (starting with Cryptonomicon). On his website, Stephenson has a lengthy page of acknowledgments for Anathem with the following disclaimer:

If Anathem were nonfiction, the parts of it where philosophy and science are being discussed would be spattered with footnotes in which I would express my indebtedness to the thinkers of Earth who originated the ideas under discussion. Each of these footnotes would be carefully hedged, in roughly the following manner:

“…. Dear reader, please know that this footnote serves only to acknowledge an intellectual debt and to give fair credit to Person X; if you really want to understand Idea Y, please buy and read Book Z.”

Keeping that general framework in mind, here are the Xs and Ys and Zs.

One of the Zs was The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin, and I soon had it from the library. It was reading Smolin’s book that reminded me why I enjoyed studying physics so very much, and ultimately led me to return to school in January to finish my PhD program.

The only problem is that the physics that most interests me (and of which Smolin reminded me) isn’t at all related to what I’m researching for my dissertation. That’s fine for now, as I believe that my current research will prove valuable to me (and hopefully to someone else!) in the future. However, recent developments have led me to once again think deeply about the work I’d like to do following graduation.

Two weeks ago I was at Half Price Books in Seattle, and I saw, in a box on the floor, The Road to Reality by Roger Penrose. I picked it up and felt a thrill go through me. This was another of Stephenson’s Zs. Soon I saw yet another on the shelf: The End of Time by Julian Barbour. Besides being referenced for Stephenson’s novel, Smolin’s discussions of the work of these two men had strongly affected me. I skipped buying some fiction books I wanted in order to buy these two books instead. In the ensuing weeks I’ve had the odd sensation of pieces moving into place, setting up for something wonderful.

So from time to time I’ll be sharing some of my thoughts on some physical and metaphysical ideas here on M*, particularly as they relate to the Gospel of Jesus Christ as I understand it. I will welcome your contributions.

In the meantime it should be clear that the novels of Neal Stephenson have had a profound effect on the direction of my life. What works of fiction have changed the course of your life, and how?

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About Ben Pratt

I am married to a brilliant and lovely woman. Remarkably, our union has produced three brilliant and lovely daughters! We enjoy reading, going for walks and bike rides, and Friday night pizza picnics in the family room. Descended from Parley P. Pratt (founding editor of this blog's namesake), Charles Henry Wilcken, Zachariah Bruyn Decker, Jesse N. Smith, Frederick G. Williams, and a host of farmers, missionaries, colonizers, businessmen, and pilots, I was raised in Chandler, AZ. I have degrees in physics from both Brigham Young University (BS) and the University of Washington (MS). I earn my filthy lucre teaching physics, mathematics, and fine arts at a public charter school in Mesa, AZ.

16 thoughts on “My Life is Headed in a Novel Direction

  1. Wow, so many books, so little time. The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings were my bibles when I was 10 years old or so. During my teens, I discovered all of James Clavell’s books, from King Rat to Shogun to Tai-pan to Noble House. That started a life-long fascination with Asia. I read Atlas Shrugged in high school, and it had a profound affect on me, even though I don’t agree with Randian philosophy. During college, I read everything I could on Latin America, mostly non-fiction but the occasional Gabriel Garcia Marquez book and of course Isabella Allende. After my conversion, the Orson Scott Card book “Saints,” which is a faith-promoting examination of polygamy, was a real eye-opener. Lately, I’ve been re-reading a lot of the classics, including 1984 and Atlas Shrugged again. Oh, I highly recommend Gore Vida’s book “Lincoln,” which I recently read. I love historical fiction.

  2. _Not Even Wrong_ is along the same lines of Lee Smolin’s book, although I like Smolin’s analysis better. I’ve recommended _The Trouble with Physics_ to a number of physics grad students, and most have confessed afterwards that they, too, are skeptical about a theory that generates no testable hypotheses. But the real benefit is the one that you’ve realized: that the work many of us would like to be doing is closer to the foundations, the real questions.

    I’ve been referring people interested in “the important questions” in physics to John Baez’ web page:

  3. When I was a sophmore in college I read the novel Possession by A.S. Byatt and thought it was the coolest thing ever. It’s a ‘literary mystery’ and it totally made me want to grad school and do research. And then I got to grad school and realized that historical criticism and philology are not cool anymore and no want wanted to help me do the work I wanted. And I felt a bit disappointed. But other things led me to want to drop out and go back to part-time teaching, so maybe some day I’ll try grad school again.

    On a slightly more cheesy note, the collection of essays called “The Mother in Me” as well as other essays published by women at Segullah really helped me make the decision to stay home for a while. I’ve never been a full-time SAHM before and it was nice to read from a bunch of articulate, diverse women who made similar decisions.

  4. I loved Anathem! It is one of the few books I wanted to read again the second I finished it. So much philosophy, physics, and grand adventure in a single novel. Breathtaking.

  5. FoxyJ philology most certainly is NOT uncool. It gave me a thrill just to see the word being used. I think it’s a fascinating subject, chock-full of connections and comings-together and realizations that can make the world seem so small and perfect and make us wonder why we ever fail to get along. If you like it, you should follow it.

    Ben, I noticed you used the term, “works of fiction”. You didn’t say books. So….

    You already know that animated series I’ve recently rediscovered and become infatuated with (though our younger siblings claim my obsession to have already lasted an eternity). Perhaps it isn’t anything about the show itself…. but my struggle to save it has, I feel, made me a better person. In my own struggling, I have come to realize that everyone is fighting a battle. I am more careful in what I do and say. I consider more, I appreciate more. I’ve become kinder on the freeway. I am even honestly considering tracking down the artists of the tunes I’ve laced over my music videos on youtube, and asking if it’s okay that I used their work, and if they say no, removing my videos.

    If you wanted to know exactly how all these things tie together you’d have to read 36 megabytes of my journal in 51 documents (as of yesterday). But I won’t bore you with that here. I’ll just say that I’m grateful for such a hard fight. It’s made me stronger in mind, body and soul.

    ….I can’t resist another shameless plug, so here’s my struggle:

    Then again, perhaps Robert Heinlein’s had a bigger effect on me than I realize.

  6. I like to read and have over one thousand of my favorite books on my Goodreads page. I enjoy reading excellent non-fiction and some fiction, but since I’m an English major/former teacher, I’m tend to be fairly particular about the books I will take the time to read. I like the read the classics, biographies, memoirs, and good Christian/LDS books.

    Lately, I’ve read widely about meditation and have learned so much. I wish I had known how to meditate years ago. It would have transformed my life.

  7. I too am a avid reader. The book that has stayed with me since childhood is “to Kill A Mockingbird”. I never tire of it. As a child I was fascinated with the small town southern life depicted in “To Kill A Mockingbird”. As an adult, I live in a 21st century southern town. I have developed a slight southern accent and feel like a native.

  8. Probably the book with the most influence on my life was accidentally Starship Troopers. I first read it in third grade (note to self: keep track of what your kids read!). I next read it in 1997 (just before the movie, which I avoided, came out) and was startled at how many political attitudes I held came straight from that book. Until then I had never understood how such a libertarian could have emerged from the bleeding heart liberal home I grew up in. I don’t know if I am happy that my impressionable mind was warped by that book, but I have been pretty happy with where I have ended up.

  9. This is great, everyone.

    Geoff: I really enjoyed Saints. That’s quite a book!

    I’ll have to check out Baez’ site, as well as “The Mother in Me,” of which I’ve heard much good.

    Andrea and Craig: it looks like you have very similar tastes!

    Carol: you write that learning meditation earlier would have transformed your life. Has it transformed the direction of your life more recently?

    Joanna: I’ve never read TKaM. I’ll have to try it.

    Craig: your story is both hilarious and sort of freaky.

  10. Oh though the show is awesome, like most things, it just can’t compare to its source material. Nice to see another Starship Troopers fan! Great book! Haven’t read it in years, but so many lines and aspects and ideas from it still stick in my mind.

  11. I really like Stephenson but I promised myself I wouldn’t read Anathem until I finished the Baroque Cycle. I still have the third book left and it has been three months since I finished book 2.

    The book Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes really had an effect on me. Kind of an odd book to have done that, but it is what it is.

    The 100’s of mystery books I have read have prepared me to kill someone and probably get away with it – not sure when I will use that skill.

  12. TStevens, definitely finish the Baroque Cycle. I’ve been itching to reread the entire cycle, and in fact the fiction books I put back (as mentioned in the OP above) were Quicksilver and The Confusion!

  13. I really like Stephenson, but there is no such thing as a quick read. My problem lies in all the things I can’t read while I spend two weeks with one of his books (I read 2-3 books per week). So many books, so little time.

    I have read the first two Baroque, Cryptonomican, and Snow Crash (I think that is the title – it was Hiro Protagonist and the online world).

  14. I picked up Snow Crash and The Diamond Age recently and devoured them. I liked them both, but I think I slightly favor Snow Crash of the two.

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